Monday, December 17, 2007

The World Without Us

In his book The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman poses an interesting question: "What would the world look like if humankind were suddenly removed from the planet?" Actually, he develops this idea in two steps. First, he speculates what the world would be like today if humanity had never developed, then he looks at what the earth would be like if we no longer existed.

He makes a good case that, from the beginning, humanity has impacted the ecosystem through pollution, farming, and species extinction. Wherever we have lived, we have both used and abused the environment. Weisman gives some fascinating examples of how the environment has experienced a resurgence when a certain area--such as the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula--has been abandoned by humanity. He argues that nature tries to restore the proper balance when given the opportunity.

In an interesting thought experiment, he discusses both the consequences of a sudden absence of humanity for the ecosystem and then what would survive that absence. The most frightening thought is what would happen to large chemical processing and storage facilities, nuclear power plants, and nuclear storage sites when abandoned by their custodians. He notes that there are some things that would survive as witnesses to the human era. The most enduring human construction would probably be Mt. Rushmore! Bronze statuary would be very durable. The item that would probably outlast everything is the common plastic water bottle. It seems that polymers are forever!

Weisman draws on geology, paleontology, physics, biology, chemistry and anthropology to present his sweeping case. In the end, he even touches a bit on philosophy and religion in considering various apocalyptic scenarios that might "take us out."

Even if we don't take into the account the biblical teachings about Creation and stewardship of all things (which Weisman does not do), we must realize that what we do to the created order does make a difference. We were not meant to exploiters of the created order but, rather, to be participants within its grandeur and richness. Weisman reminds us of the importance of healthy and wise human interaction with the world. It is an impressive and enlightening argument.

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